Hydrogeology of the regional aquifer near Flagstaff, Arizona, 1994-97

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2000-4122

Prepared in cooperation with the City of Flagstaff
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Sandstones, siltstones, and limestones that are Pennsylvanian to Permian in age underlie the southern part of the Colorado Plateau near Flagstaff, Arizona, and contain a complex regional aquifer that has become increasingly important as a source of water for domestic, municipal, and recreational uses. Ground-water flow in the regional aquifer is poorly understood in this area because (1) depth of the aquifer limits exploratory drilling and testing and (2) the geologic structure increases the complexity of the aquifer characteristics and the ground-water flow system.

Four methods were used to improve the understanding of the hydrogeology of the regional aquifer near Flagstaff.

• Remote-sensing techniques and geologic mapping provided data to identify many structural features that indicate a more complex structural environment and history than previously realized.

• Data from surface-geophysical techniques that included ground-penetrating radar, seismic reflection and seismic refraction, and square-array resistivity, verified that some of the geologic structures expressed at land surface propagate deep into the subsurface and through the principal water-bearing zones of the regional aquifer at near-vertical angles.

• A well and spring inventory, borehole-geophysical methods, and well and aquifer tests provided additional information relating aquifer and ground-water flow characteristics to geologic structure.

• Water-chemistry data, which included major ion, nutrient, trace-element, and radioactive and stable-isotope analyses, provided an independent means of verifying the hydrogeologic characteristics of the aquifer and were used to determine recharge and discharge areas, groundwater movement, and ground-water age.

Ground-water recharge occurs throughout the area but is greatest at higher altitudes where precipitation is greater and in areas where heavily fractured rock units of the aquifer are exposed. The estimated annual average recharge to the regional aquifer in the study area is about 290,000 acre-feet. Ground water flows laterally and vertically through pore spaces in the rock and along faults and other fractures from high-altitude areas in the southern part of the study area to regional drains north of the study area along the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers, and to drains south of the study area along Oak Creek and the Verde Valley. Ground-water discharge in these areas—about 400,000 acre-feet per year—exceeds the annual recharge to the aquifer in the Flagstaff area, but ground water from areas outside the study area contributes to this discharge as well. The saturated thickness of the regional aquifer averages about 1,200 feet, and the amount of water in storage could be as much as 4,800,000 acrefeet, or about 10 percent of the total volume of the aquifer.

The quality of water in the regional aquifer in terms of dissolved-solids concentrations is good for most uses throughout the area. Dissolvedsolids concentrations generally are less than 500 milligrams per liter. Water in the regional aquifer is primarily a calcium magnesium bicarbonate type. In some areas near the Rio de Flag, the water has significant nitrate and chloride components, which indicate direct recharge in these areas from the Rio de Flag. Oxygen and deuterium data indicate a common recharge source for water in the aquifer and that some sites receive recharge from surface waters where evaporation has occurred. Estimated carbon-14 ages and tritium activities indicate ground-water ages from less than 200 years in the Lake Mary area to more than 5,000 years in the Wupatki area.

The regional aquifer is heterogeneous and anisotrophic and has a complex ground-water flow system. The most productive water-bearing material tends to be fine- to medium-grained sandstones, and ground-water flow and potential well yields are related to geologic structure. Fracturing associated with structural deformation increases recharge locally and also increases the potential for high well yields. Surface-geophysical techniques provided information on the orientation of high-angle, deep-seated structure in the saturated zone. Borehole-geophysical data identified horizontal to near-horizontal fractures as significant components of the fracture-flow system not apparent in the surface-geophysical data. Structural features that strike northwest appear to be areas that have the greatest potential for high well yields. A north-northeastward-striking structure may be just as promising, but additional data are needed to verify this relation.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Hydrogeology of the regional aquifer near Flagstaff, Arizona, 1994-97
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Tucson, AZ
Report: x, 142 p.; Errata: 1 p.
Time Range Start:
Time Range End:
United States
Universal Transverse Mercator projection